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Benedict XVI 1927-2022

On the life and legacy of Joseph Ratzinger.


With the death of Pope Benedict XVI, we lost one of the most idiosyncratic and essential figures in the modern history of Christianity who, in translating fundamental questions about the nature of the universe into the language of his own era, spoke for all time. The meaning of his papacy—his relationship with his sainted predecessor, his restoration of the traditional Latin Mass, the creation of the Ordinariate, perhaps above all the implications of his resignation—will fully emerge in the years, decades, and likely centuries to come. For the moment we can only reflect on his life and legacy, much in the way mourners write in the guest book at a funeral.

Joseph Alois Ratzinger was born on April 16, 1927, in the village of Marktl am Inn, Altöttingen, and baptized the same day. His father, Joseph Ratzinger was a police officer; his mother, Maria Ratzinger was a baker’s daughter. He had two elder siblings, Maria Theogona Ratzinger and Monsignor Georg Ratzinger; they remained close throughout their lives. In 1937, he began his classical education at the Gymnasium in Traunstein, a half hour’s walk from the Ratzingers’ new home in Hufschlag. Then, in April 1939, he enrolled in the diocesan minor seminary, which closed in 1942 when the building was requisitioned by the army. He did not resume his Gymnasium education for long: in August 1943 he was drafted into the German anti-aircraft corps. The following year he was conscripted, first into the Reich Labour Service, then the infantry; but he deserted from the Wehrmacht in May 1945 and returned home, where he was detained by American forces, and interned in a prisoner of war camp until July 1945. Shortly afterwards, he re-entered the seminary in Traunstein.

In 1947, he studied at the Herzogliches Georgianum, a theological institute affiliated with the Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich. One of his professors was the dogmatic theologian Father Michael Schmaus, who disapproved of Joseph Ratzinger’s apparent sympathies for “modernist” approaches to theology. Not only was young Ratzinger increasingly close intellectually to Father Romano Guardini; he was also showing interest in the work of Father Henri de Lubac, who spent most of the 1950s under sanction by the Jesuits, and was forbidden to teach.

Georg and Joseph Ratzinger were both ordained priests in June 1951 by Michael Cardinal von Faulhaber. Father Joseph Ratzinger soon began lecturing at the seminary in Freising, and passed his doctoral examinations summa cum laude in 1953. His dissertation was titled “The People and the House of God in Saint Augustine’s Doctrine of the Church.” At Easter in 1956, Ratzinger was shocked to learn that Schmaus had rejected his seven-hundred-page “Habilitation” thesis in fundamental theology. But he was allowed to resubmit a drastically shortened version of the text in February 1957. Thereafter his career resumed its rapid rise; in January 1958 he was appointed Extraordinary Professor of Dogmatics and Theology at the Freising College of Philosophy and Theology, with later appointments at Bonn, Münster, Tübingen, and Regensburg.

Ratzinger’s brilliance as a theologian soon attracted the notice of Josef cardinal Frings, archbishop of Cologne and President of the German Bishops’ Conference. Frings asked him to ghost-write the text of a speech that he was invited to give in Genoa in November 1961, entitled “The Council Against the Background of the Present Time in Contrast to the First Vatican Council.” Pope John XXIII congratulated Frings on the text. Ratzinger would become Cardinal Fring’s closest advisor at the Second Vatican Council. Ratzinger became well known internationally as a “progressive” theologian during the council; he was known to be friendly with controversial figures including de Lubac, Father Karl Rahner, and Father Hans Küng. By the end of the council, the first rifts in his relationship with Küng were already visible; his lecture in Münster in June 1965 (“True and False Renewal in the Church”) marked the beginning of a lifelong battle to secure the legacy of the Second Vatican Council.

In 1969, Ratzinger expressed his dismay in uncharacteristically blunt terms when Pope Paul VI decided to suppress the ancient rite of the Mass. His address for the sixtieth anniversary of Cardinal Frings’s ordination as a priest, “The Situation of the Church Today: Hopes and Dangers,” marks the beginning of his reputation as a “conservative”—a reputation that was more thrust upon him than one he sought after himself.

To help maintain the “true spirit of Vatican II,” Ratzinger founded the international theological journal Communio along with de Lubac and Father Hans Urs von Balthasar. Many of the bishops and cardinals appointed by Pope Saint John Paul II were directly associated with Communio. Ratzinger’s influence spread further still with the international success of his first popular book, Introduction to Christianity. In March 1977, Ratzinger was appointed Archbishop of Munich and Freising; in April he turned fifty; in June he was appointed Cardinal. He spent just under five years in Munich; in November 1981, Cardinal Ratzinger was appointed prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Cardinal Ratzinger’s long, frank discussion with the Italian journalist Vittorio Messori in August 1984 was published in 1985 as The Ratzinger Report: An Exclusive Interview on the State of the Church. Küng’s harsh review in Die Zeit, with the ungenerous headline, “The Old Inquisition Is Dead, Long Live the New,” improbably presented this gentle, shy, conciliatory theologian as a cantankerous, uncompromising reactionary. Küng’s distorted depiction became a common understanding even in Catholic media.

In April 2005, John Paul II, with whom Ratzinger had worked closely from the time of the council, died. As dean of the College of Cardinals, Cardinal Ratzinger presided over the funeral. Shortly afterwards, on April 19, 2005, he was elected pope, taking the name Benedict XVI. One of Pope Benedict’s most important contributions to the revival of Catholic life was his promulgation of the apostolic letter Summorum pontificum in 2007, which enabled priests to celebrate the ancient Mass without permission from Rome or their local bishop. This, like seemingly every single major act of his papacy—from his lecture delivered in 2006 at the University of Regensburg to his creation of the Ordinariate and regularization of the Society of Saint Pius X—provoked controversy and unfavorable media attention. Pope Benedict was exhausted by scandal after scandal. At the end of January 2013, he wrote out a short text in Latin announcing his resignation as Bishop of Rome, and made his decision public on February 11.

Pope Benedict spent almost a decade as “Pope Emeritus,” living in the Mater Ecclesiae Monastery, where he died on New Year’s Eve 2022. Below we present the thoughts of those who knew him, some personally, some only through his writings and work. But all appreciate his importance in the history of the Church and of the world.

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José H. Gomez is archbishop of Los Angeles, home to the largest Catholic community in the United States. He is the former president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.